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Journalist: Russia's Interference Is An 'Assault On The Western Liberal Order'

Journalist Luke Harding has an insider's understanding of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Harding served as Moscow bureau chief for the British newspaper The Guardian from 2007 until 2011.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We were so sorry to hear about the death of Mary Tyler Moore yesterday. Tomorrow, we'll feature our 1995 interview with her. Today, we're going to talk about the dossier that alleges collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russians and the ways in which Russia may be trying to influence elections in Europe. My guest, Luke Harding, is the senior international correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. From 2007 to 2011, he was the paper's Moscow bureau chief. He learned a lot about Russian espionage techniques from being spied on himself which he'll tell us about later.

The harassment didn't stop him from pursuing stories the Kremlin didn't want him to investigate, so he was expelled from Russia. Harding's new book is about the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko who fled to England where he passed information to British intelligence. Litvinenko was poisoned by drinking tea spiked with radioactive polonium. The official British investigation concluded that he was probably murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. A British intelligence agent named Christopher Steele investigated the Litvinenko assassination. Now this former MI6 agent is famous as the person who put together the dossier on the alleged Trump campaign ties to Russia.

My guest, Luke Harding, has also written books about WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden. Both books were adapted into films. Luke Harding, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you know a lot of people in British intelligence. What's the range of opinion about Christopher Steele, the former British intelligent agent who went into business for himself and wrote this now famous Russian dossier? What's the range of opinion about Steele's credibility and accuracy?

LUKE HARDING: I've talked to several people who've known Steele for a number of years including one person who's known him since 1992 when Steele left Moscow, left the British embassy where he was based for two years. And they say the following. They say that he is credible, that he's conservative, that he's sober. He's not prone to making stuff up and essentially that he wouldn't have had a successful career as a British spy if he'd been someone who passed dodgy material off as the real thing. They're very impressed by him.

One person I talked to was a former British ambassador in Russia called Sir Andrew Wood, and he was the person who actually alerted John McCain to this dossier. They met at a conference in Canada. And Wood said the same thing to me that he knows Steele, that he rates him - that he may have got one or two things wrong, but, in essence, that he's highly professional and not someone who would be a fantasist.

GROSS: Yeah. So the person you just mentioned Sir Andrew Wood gave the dossier to Senator John McCain who then passed it on to the FBI.

HARDING: Well, that's right. And I think you have to kind of bear in mind that there are thousands of these reports which are written by former intelligence officers both American and British which are flying around. Some are done for companies for due diligence purposes. Some are done for other kinds of clients, but actually very few of them make it to the desk of the American president. And that's precisely what happened.

I think we have to - some of the stuff in there we can talk about it is kind of not proven. And some of it may be wrong, but, in essence, I think the U.S. intelligence community thought this was sufficiently serious that it kind of jumped up the pile, jumped up the in-tray of President Obama. And he read it, and, of course, President Trump read it as well.

GROSS: So knowing what you know about Russia based on your experiences there, based on being spied on and expelled yourself, what do you think are some of the most important allegations in this dossier?

HARDING: Well, the dossier's got two parts to it. It's got the sort of sensational sex stuff which allegedly took place in the Ritz-Carlton which is a five-star hotel in Moscow, not far from Red Square which I know very well. Now, I think in a way the sex allegations are unprovable and probably irrelevant. I think what's far more damaging to President Trump - though, again, so far we don't know whether it's true or not - is the allegation of collusion.

Basically Christopher Steele says that there were extensive contacts between Trump's team and the Russian leadership, that the Russians were trying for at least five years to basically cultivate Trump. And there were back channels - one in Prague involving Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen which has been denied vehemently and another involving Trump's foreign policy aide Carter Page who - this is matter of fact - he visited Moscow in July of last year.

Now, this is kind of damning stuff. The best assessment from the FBI and other agencies was that Russia hacked the U.S. election. Now, if Trump connived or colluded in this hacking conniver - the foreign power - then I think that's extremely serious indeed.

GROSS: What are the biggest questions you have about the dossier?

HARDING: Well, I'm intrigued by a whole number of aspects. If you understand Russia, as I do, you know that the Kremlin does do these kind of covert operations. They seek to influence elections both in Europe and America. And I think what I've heard from my counsels - is in Moscow is that the Russians were really out to get Hillary Clinton. They wanted to undermine her. They wanted to kind of damage her candidacy, but they also thought that she would win the election. And in a way, they were trying to kind of kneecap her, chop her legs off before she became president of the United States.

And I think the fact that Donald Trump didn't just take many people in America or in Europe by surprise. It also took the Russians by surprise. And this was a kind of spectacular success for them not least because if U.S. intelligence agencies are to be believed, this is a pretty low-grade hacking operation involving phishing emails. So it was minimum outlay for maximum return. And we know that the Russian parliament was celebrating with champagne when Trump was elected.

GROSS: Well, you know, you've reported that in Russia on the day of the vote, state media told Russians that the election - the American election - was fixed and that Hillary Clinton's victory was preordained. It's interesting that's similar to what Donald Trump had been saying which was that the election was fixed.

HARDING: Well, there was a kind of playbook that - the sort of Russian state media which essentially takes its instructions from the Kremlin...

GROSS: I should mention Trump was saying that before he won (laughter), not after.

HARDING: Yeah. That's right. But the script was that here he was going to win, but actually the election was fraudulent, it wasn't democratic, that Hillary was the creature of Wall Street, etc., etc. So that was the script, and the script had to be hastily torn up when Trump won. But, of course, if you look at the geopolitics of this, for Putin this is a massive victory because his number-one priority is to get rid of sanctions imposed by President Obama in 2014 after Putin annexed the Crimea and Ukraine and covertly invaded the east of the country.

Now the Russian economy is in trouble. A lot of Putin's billionaire friends can't travel abroad because they're under sanctions. And getting rid of them - what was a key thing? And, of course, Donald Trump all the way through the campaign, for reasons we still don't fully understand, was incredibly praising of Vladimir Putin personally and said that one of his early acts as president would be to drop the sanctions.

GROSS: So I just want to amend something that I said. I said that Donald Trump claimed that the election was fixed before the vote was in. He said it was fixed so that Hillary would win. But now he's saying that millions of illegal immigrants voted and had that been prevented, he would have won the popular vote. So in some ways, he still thinks that there was something like not fully legitimate about the election.

So you've said that you think one of Russia's goals was to convince Westerners that their governments aren't any better than Russia's? What's the point of that?

HARDING: This is one of Putin's tactics that he first learnt as a genius spy in Leningrad when he joined the KGB, essentially lying if you're in the KGB - there's nothing wrong about it. It's simply a kind of tactic. It's a kind of operational strategy.

And what we've seen essentially is that the Kremlin has come to perfect these postmodern techniques - first of all, by squashing domestic criticism and taking over TV inside Russia. But really over the last sort of seven or eight years wheeling this out to an English-language audience through things like Russia Today, the English language propaganda channel of the Kremlin. And the goal is essentially to persuade some people that the Kremlin's view of events is true, but also to kind of confuse and bamboozle everybody else by floating conspiracy theories so there are 10 different explanations for an event by doing fake news, by hiring armies of trolls. And so it's clever. It's clever because it allows, actually, the Russian regime to get away with all sorts of things. And increasingly it's sort of, I guess, exploiting the openness of Western societies and America in particular.

GROSS: But why does Russia want to convince Westerners that their governments aren't any better than Russia's?

HARDING: Well, it's an operation both designed internally for Russians. I mean, the message is that actually - you look at the West, it looks a bit shinier than Russia. They've got better roads, better infrastructure, but essentially ever is the same. All politicians are corrupt. All elections are fixed. The establishment will cheat if it can. You can hire any politician if the price is right.

And, actually, Putin has been very successful at doing that - if you look at Gerhard Schroeder the former chancellor of Germany who's on the Kremlin's payroll, if you look at Silvio Berlusconi the ex-prime minister of Italy. And in the U.S., I think the goal of this hacking operation was not primarily to get Donald Trump to win, although they're delighted that he did win, but to sort of discredit American democracy and say that your democracy is no better than our democracy.

GROSS: Is that to convince Russians not to worry about their government or is that to convince Americans about something?

HARDING: It's to convince both. Russia's had four or five years of economic decline. Wages are stagnant. There's massive corruption. Billions of dollars are flying out of Russia and being hidden offshore by members of the elite. I mean, at the same time, the Kremlin's been very clever at exploiting what you might call genuine kind of voter anger at sort of post-2008 austerity and immigration in Europe and kind of the rage that a lot of ordinary people feel towards those that govern them.

And so what we've seen over the last few years is covert and sometimes overt support for the anti-establishment far left, for example, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party in the U.K. where I am, but also for the kind of nationalist far right. And Trump and his team and the sort of Kremlin people who are conservative, who are Orthodox, who are socially liberal, it's a sort of perfect ideological match.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Luke Harding, and he is a international correspondent for The Guardian, the British newspaper. He was based in Russia for The Guardian for four years. He was expelled for reporting Putin connections to organized crime and intelligence connections to organized crime.

He has a new book called "A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination Of Alexander Litvinenko And Putin's War With The West." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Luke Harding. He's a senior international correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. He covered Russia for four years for The Guardian and then he was expelled because Putin did not like what he was writing. He has a memoir that he wrote about how he was expelled. He has a new book about the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin's war with the West. It's called "A Very Expensive Poison," and he's written books about WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden.

Now, you say that since 2009, the Kremlin has actively cultivated ties with the far-right in Europe. What are some examples of that?

HARDING: The most striking example is the 10 million euro loan given by a Moscow bank to Marine Le Pen. Now, Marine Le Pen, of course, is the French presidential contender who, if you believe the polls, will almost certainly contest a runoff vote in France in May. Now, that's pretty extraordinary. We have a leader who some would say is kind of racist, white nationalist who has a strong tilt of becoming president of France and at the same time, the other candidate - the other likely candidate from the conservative sort of French-right is called Francois Fillon. Both of them are pro-Putin. They want to dump sanctions against Russia.

Now, this is a hugely important election for the Kremlin in France coming up. The other important poll is in Germany in the autumn where Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is fighting a kind of strong threat from the far-right there as well, the Alliance for Germany it's called. And there is very good evidence of links informal we know of between the Russian ambassador in Berlin and the German far-right and also between the German far-left.

And what's clear here, I think, is the Kremlin's goal which is essentially to undermine European solidarity and the European Union and if possible get rid of Angela Merkel who is now following Trump's sort of election victory, their kind of biggest enemy in the West.

GROSS: So does it make sense for Russia to be funding both the left and the right?

HARDING: Yeah. Essentially, it's kind of - the idea is a sort of pincer movement. But Brexit in the U.K. last year - it was a huge kind of bonus for Vladimir Putin. Now, one of the stories I've been looking at is whether there was any covert funding of the Brexit campaign. I haven't found any evidence of that, but it's clear that Britain leaving the European Union was the Kremlin's preferred outcome because it leaves the country weaker and economically and politically in turmoil for years to come.

And, essentially, I think what's going on here. I mean, I don't want to sound kind of too hyperbolic, but it's really an assault on the the Western liberal order that the sort of dominant form of politics in America and Europe over the last 70 years since the Second World War. And what Putin wants is he wants to turn the clock back to an age of great powers to almost an imperial era of the 19th century where strong sovereign nations didn't talk about values or human rights or anything like that. They cut deals, they had summits, they made grand bargains in Vienna or recently I've heard talk of a summit in Reykjavik like in the Cold War. And they divvied up - they divided the world into into spheres of influence.

And I mean, I can't predict the future, but I can see a scenario where Trump and Putin can sit down around a table and strike exactly that kind of grand bargain almost as if they've fallen through a wormhole and gone back to the 1890s.

GROSS: Does that relate to why Putin doesn't like the idea of the EU because it's not like one sovereign nation, it's like an alliance of countries?

HARDING: That's absolutely right, Terry. Putin hates multinationalism. He much prefers doing deals with - sort of bilateral deals with sovereign nations, preferably weaker sovereign nations and preferably involving energy - oil and gas - of course, which Russia has in abundance. And I think this is where there's a kind of overlap with Donald Trump because Donald Trump famously sees himself as a dealmaker, someone who can kind of cut through and negotiate and so on.

But I think the interesting question about Trump and Russia going forward is - he's talked about how Obama has failed and getting on with Vladimir Putin, but to what end? What will America's strategic goals be with Russia? Because, actually, there's no point in having a deal for the sake of a deal. And the reason that relations have gotten so bad between Moscow and Washington over the last sort of five, 10 years is because of Putin's misbehavior. I mean, he invaded Georgia. He invaded Ukraine in 2014. He's annexed a chunk of territory the size of Belgium. And if - the CIA believes he's just hacked the U.S. election. And so, sure, you can deal with him. But deal with him on what basis?

GROSS: Now, you mentioned Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right in France who's running for president and might win, was given a loan by Russia. It was, like, over 9 million pounds. So, you know, a loan isn't exactly, like, a gift. So what makes you suspicious of a loan from Russia?

HARDING: Well, Russia is a foreign power, and it has a dog in this fight. It wants Marine Le Pen to win. It wants sanctions imposed by France and other EU countries against Russia to be dropped. It wants Putin's sort of friends who can no longer access their wine collections in Switzerland - I've heard that from one oligarch who's been complaining he can't go to Switzerland anymore where his wine is stored, and he is very unhappy about that. They can't go skiing in the French Alps or take their yachts to Sardinia. I mean, this is insulting. These are very rich people who can no longer kind of play in some of the world's most beautiful spaces. So this is the key geopolitical goal.

So it's not just a straightforward commercial loan. It's done from a bank that essentially follows the Kremlin's instructions. This is one we know about. What we don't know about are other covert sources of funding. And I think, to get back to Donald Trump, this is a sort of key question for the CIA and FBI. You know, one, how much money, if any, does Trump owe to foreign powers? And, two, is any of this money from Russia and Moscow? These are very important and big questions.

GROSS: So you're trying to investigate whether the Brexit vote was funded in part by Russia. In other words, whether the pro-Brexit leaders' campaign had covert Russian funding. How do you go about investigating that as a reporter? I mean, you're not an intelligence agent.

HARDING: Well, Terry, it's very hard, not least because very rich people, as we know from the Panama Papers, which I worked on for The Guardian, my newspaper...

GROSS: And those are the papers that exposed very, very wealthy people who had offshore money that they secretly placed that was...

HARDING: That's right. We discovered...

GROSS: ...That was untaxable and secret, yeah.

HARDING: Yeah. We discovered - surprise, surprise - that the global rich actually don't really pay tax anymore.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARDING: It's just losers like you and me who pay tax and many of your viewers who pay tax. But, actually, the beautiful people have stopped paying tax and, essentially, they hire accountants and lawyers to set up complex structures - they're called in the jargon - to minimize their tax bills.

And one thing I found was I found an awful lot of kind of Russians in the Panama papers, including, as we said, Vladimir Putin's best friend, someone called Sergei Roldugin who we thought was a humble cellist but, I discovered, had $2 billion flowing into his offshore bank accounts.

Now, the thing is you asked about Brexit. How do we prove it? Well, it's tough, but we've been helped by the fact that we live in an era of leaks - of massive kind of data releases, often done by whistleblowers. We had Edward Snowden, who I wrote a book about it, but we've also had the enormous Panama Papers leak. And I'm sure there will be other leaks in future.

And so, in a way, it's a kind of really fascinating moment in history. You have rich people, you have governments, you have Donald Trump, who hasn't given us his tax returns, fighting to keep things secret. And at the same time, we have an army of investigative journalists, myself included, trying to find stuff out. And so I'd be very interested to see what happens over the next 12 months. I think we're in for a really bumpy ride.

GROSS: My guest is Luke Harding senior international correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian. After a break, he'll tell us about how he was spied on while reporting from Russia. And we'll talk about the role fake news has played in Putin's Russia. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Luke Harding, who's been writing about Russia's alleged meddling in the U.S. and European elections. He was the Moscow bureau chief for the British newspaper The Guardian from 2007 to 2011. He was expelled after investigating stories the Kremlin didn't want him to cover. Harding is now The Guardian's senior international correspondent. His new book, "A Very Expensive Poison," is about the assassination of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko who had fled to England and passed information to British intelligence.

Let's talk about your experiences in Russia. What were you writing that led you to be spied on, or would you have just been spied on as a British correspondent one way or another?

HARDING: I think, Terry, I was pretty unlucky. I arrived with my family, my wife and two small kids, in January 2007, just a couple of months after Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in the most extraordinary fashion with polonium, which is an extremely rare radioactive substance which was put in a cup of green tea that he drank in London in November 2006. And it was a time of great suspicion between Moscow and London. And I was very marginally involved in a story which was an interview with Putin's great enemy, someone called Boris Berezovsky who was an oligarch who fell out with Putin and fled to London. And Berezovsky said he was plotting a revolution against Putin, and we put the story on the front page.

And the next day, I found myself being followed around the icy streets of Moscow by unpromising young men in cheap black leather jackets and brown shoes who would sit next to me - this is before the iPhone came along - and dumped bags with recording devices in them and so on. And this was the beginning of a campaign of harassment, which got nastier and nastier and went on for almost four years until I was kicked out of Moscow in 2011.

GROSS: So when spies were, like, overtly watching you, taking out bags of recording equipment, I mean, they weren't trying to hide that they were following you. Is that intentionally to harass you to let you know don't do anything we wouldn't like because we've got our eyes on you? If there's any doubt about that, we are watching you.

HARDING: I mean, I almost feel I could write the KGB handbook. I kind of lived it for quite a long time. And actually the most sort of - if I'm honest, the worst aspect of this was that we had a sort of series of break-ins at our flat where these agents would come in - obviously when we were away - and they would leave clues that any idiot could find. You didn't need to be Sherlock Holmes. It was completely obvious that they cut the central heating when it was minus 20, that they deleted my screensaver showing my wife and kids.

And most chillingly, we came back - we were living on the 10th floor of a new-built (ph) apartment block in northwest Moscow. We came back to discover the window next to my 6-year-old son's bed, which we always double locked because it was a huge drop to the courtyard below, had been bust open and propped open next to the bed. And it was a sort of chilling sign, if you like, that if you carry on writing the stuff you're writing about, your son might just fall out the window. And I took advice from the British embassy in Moscow. They told me that this kind of harassment, psychological harassment really, was meted out to British diplomats, to American diplomats as well, to their Russian staff. And our apartment was now bugged, and there was not much we could do about it.

They also said that the FSB, the KGB, the spy agency, didn't actually hurt kids, but this was kind of nasty stuff. But one thing puts me in mind of sort of Donald Trump, that there's a whole kind of conversation about what he did or didn't do in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Moscow in 2013 about whether there was sexual activity going on or not. But one thing I can tell you is that the FSB really are obsessed with sex because I came home after one break-in and I discovered a sort of sex manual left by the side of my bed, the marital bed, next to all of the kind of middle-class novels that your listeners have, you know, in English. There was this bloody sex manual, and the FSB-KGB, they had bookmarked it to page 181.

And so it was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I opened this thing and I'm thinking, what are they trying to tell me? Is there a frequency issue or some other kind of technical problem that they've observed on their video? And it was - the page was on orgasms, how to have a better orgasm. And of course, we kind of waved this thing around at dinner parties and we laughed at it, but actually it wasn't so funny. I mean, it showed that the KGB has a dark sense of humor, but they were basically saying, we're watching you.

GROSS: Are they saying in that with the sex manual we are watching you having sex with your wife because your bedroom is bugged?

HARDING: Yeah, that's what they were saying, and the British embassy also confirmed it. And this is standard operational practice. The FSB, Putin's former spy agency - bear in mind, he was FSB chief before he became prime minister and then president - specializes in collecting what they call kompromat, which is compromising material of people. And you can guarantee that any high-profile American - Donald Trump - doesn't have to be Donald Trump but it could be anybody - he visits Moscow - will be spied upon. It's what they do. It's a vast organization. It's the preeminent institution in Russia. All of Putin's most senior aides are themselves ex-KGB or FSB. And they're extremely good at covert video, covert surveillance.

And one thing worth bearing in mind - the Kremlin of course denies that it's got any tape of Mr. Trump, and that may be true, but when he was FSB chief, Putin released a tape of the then attorney general in Russia having sex with two young women who were not his wife. The attorney general had fallen out with the then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin. And it's clear that they do this stuff.

GROSS: So this is a very personal question. You don't need to answer it, but I'll ask it anyways. If there was a sex manual left by the KGB with the understanding that they were trying to say to you, we see you. We even see you in your bedroom. That seems like it would be very inhibiting sexually to suspect that your bedroom was being monitored by the KGB.

HARDING: Well, what do you do? I mean, first of all, the KGB have been doing this for ages. I mean, they used to do it in the '60s and '70s. They had a kind of a symbol in this sort of - their sort of transcripts whenever they had a target. You know, they would make - mark a little cross when there was a sort of sexual activity. The Stasi did the same. But what's one supposed to do? I mean, life is life, right? And then you have to smile and carry on. I mean, you can't not have sex for four years or at least I can't (laughter). And my wife is a kind of strong, robust individual. She led her own life. She loved it. I mean, I loved it, too. I still love it. I just - my issue is not with the Russian people. It's with the Russian government and the FSB in particular. But the best weapon against being sort of sledged by dark powers, by authority and powers, by ghosts, if you like it, is humor. So we would make jokes. So for example, our kind of telephones were bugged. That's standard procedure, not just for me but certainly for every American correspondent in Moscow. Someone listens in and I had a joke about Putin and the line would be cut and I would - I'd get (imitating static noise) like this. So what do you do? You make another joke about Putin and (imitating static noise) and so on (laughter). And I discovered kind of reservoirs of stubbornness in me that I didn't know existed. I mean, of course the purpose of all this was for us to throw up our arms and say we can't bear it. Let's go home. But one thing we did do was that we - there was a little plum tree in the back of our garden. Whenever we had anything private to discuss, we would leave the flat, sometimes in the snow, go and stand by the plum tree and talk. And for us, the plum tree came to symbolize private space.

GROSS: How did you know for sure the plum tree wasn't bugged?

HARDING: Well, I mean, it may have been, but we were advised by the British embassies - anything kind of important to say, say it in the first five minutes if you're meeting someone in a cafe before the kind of surveillance team shows up. And they also said, like, you know, you can draw stuff with felt tip pens to communicate and then flush it down the loo afterwards. And we did that for a couple of days and then we gave up, I mean, it was just too silly. You can't live like that. You have to kind of carry on. And actually, I mean, I think one important thing is this was relatively low-level harassment. I've been contacted by Russians, you know, people in the Russian opposition who've been treated in a similar way. But there's a huge distinction between Americans working in Moscow - diplomats or otherwise - and Brits and Russians.

And the Russian's the real hero in this story because the sort of Putin assumption is that any American, any Brit in Moscow is a spy, that we're all spies. We must be spies, why else would we be there? So you can hound a foreign spy, but you don't kill foreign spies - I mean, in my case I was sort of deported - whereas the Russians are different. If you're a traitor in the Kremlin's eyes like Alexander Litvinenko then anything can happen, to you being fired three weeks before you're due to get your state pension or your daughter losing her university place to you being shot. And we've seen some of the bravest and the brightest Russians have been killed.

I'm thinking of Anna Politkovskaya - who was gunned down in 2006 in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment - who was a liberal journalist and a friend of Alexander Litvinenko's. And I'm thinking of Boris Nemtsov, who was an opposition leader shot dead in early 2015, 300 meters away from the Kremlin in the most secure part of town. And so the Russians are the hero in this story, and if and when Russia does become a democracy or a semi-democracy, I hope that they can be honored.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Luke Harding. He's a senior international correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. He spent four years in Russia covering Russia for The Guardian, then he was expelled for writing about ties between the Russian government and the Russian mafia. He's written books about Edward Snowden and about WikiLeaks. He wrote a book about being expelled, and now he has a book called "A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination Of Alexander Litvinenko And Putin's War With The West." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Luke Harding. He's a senior international correspondent for The Guardian. He spent four years in Russia for The Guardian, then he was expelled from Russia because he reported on ties between the Putin government and the Russian mafia. He has a new book called "A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination Of Alexander Litvinenko And Putin's War With The West." Litvinenko was a former Russian spy who started working with British intelligence after he fled Russia.

So you were expelled from Russia after you were first briefly arrested and kept in a cell, so they were definitely sending you a strong message before you were expelled. What specifically had you written that got you expelled?

HARDING: I think there were three strikes against me. One was certainly my attempts to investigate the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Now, I interviewed the two killers, they're called Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. They were both from KGB families and were - travelled to London and we know poisoned Litvinenko with a radioactive cup of tea. So...

GROSS: And so for anyone just joining us, Litvinenko was a former - was Russian spy who left Russia, lived in exile in England and started collaborating with British intelligence, and then he was assassinated.

HARDING: That's right, so he was a traitor as far as the Kremlin was concerned. So that was - officially Vladimir Putin said he had nothing to do with the murder, but there's now been a public inquiry which found that he probably approved it and concluded absolutely this was a kind of Russian state plot. So that was one strike.

A second strike was I began investigating Putin's money, his fortune because formally he just owns a second-hand car and a small apartment. But actually everybody in the Russian elite knows that he's probably the richest guy on the planet, and certainly the people around him are all multi-billionaires. And the way the system works in Russia is that their money is his money. So if Putin wants yachts or he wants to buy an election or he wants to do a covert hacking operation like we saw last year in the U.S. or he wants a football stadium built, he makes a call and kind of instrumentalizes that money. So if you goes to Switzerland and say, have you got a bank account in the name of Vladimirovich Putin, they'll say I'm terribly sorry, there's no one of that name. But essentially he and his team preside over a fortune of I would say somewhere between 200, $300 billion dollars, and certainly this is what the U.S. Treasury Department believes as well because I've talked to them about it.

So that was two strikes. And the third strike was traveling to the north caucuses of Russia, which is the southern Muslim region, where there's a kind of much under-reported but low-level war going on between federal and local security forces and Islamists - basically sort of Islamic jihadists - and there are human rights abuses on both sides. And basically you're not supposed to go there, but I did.

GROSS: So when you wrote these stories, did you fear for your life?

HARDING: Well, I didn't fear for my life, but it was made pretty clear to me that I was pursuing themes which were not wanted. So for example in early summer of 2007, I was formally summoned by the FSB - successor agency to the KGB - to Lefortovo Prison, which is a sort of notorious KGB jail for the most important prisoners. I was interviewed. I was kind of interrogated. And actually the interview wasn't - there wasn't a sort of substantive interview. There wasn't a kind of - it wasn't a evidential thing, it was just a series of banal questions, and I think the idea was to scare me.

But it was interesting, I mean, we've talked a lot about kind of is there a new Cold War. And I think there is a new Cold War, and certainly as far as Putin and his team are concerned, the Cold War never really ended. Russia didn't lose it in the 1990s, the Cold War is still going on, but this time Russia intends to win.

GROSS: What would winning mean?

HARDING: Winning would mean a sort of international system where liberal values are abandoned, where no one talks about human rights, where deals can be made. I mean, Putin basically thinks - he thinks in conspiratorial terms. He thinks that if you can't make a deal over something, then there's a conspiracy. And he genuinely believes that the U.S. conspired against him in 2011 and 2012, where - as you probably remember - tens of thousands of Russians protested on the streets of Moscow against Putin's decision to come back for a third term as Russia's president. He says he believes that this was a CIA operation. Now, there's no evidence of that. I'm sure there are many CIA operations, but I don't think that was one of them, but that's what he believes.

And so what he wants is he wants to strike deals. And what he wants above all is Russia be treated as a kind of co-equal partners to the United States as it was during the glory days of the Soviet Union. So that they sit around the table, there's a U.S. flag, there's a Russian flag, and they decide the fate of the world. That's what he wants, he wants Russia to be an indispensable partner when it comes to major international questions, whether it's the war in Syria, the settlement in Ukraine, Iran's nuclear program and so on, that Russia is respected and, perhaps, a little feared and is always at top table.

GROSS: I have another question for you about your experiences when you were living in Russia and reporting on it for The Guardian. Fake news has become a very big concern here in the United States. There's a lot of fake news in Russia. Can you talk a little bit about how fake news plays out, who's behind it and the impact it has on Russia? That's like three really large questions, so take it (laughter).

HARDING: They're great questions right there, really.

GROSS: Back to you (laughter).

HARDING: They're (laughter) - they are great questions. I mean, I think that the Kremlin isn't very good at winning Olympic medals. We've had all these kind of doping scandals. But when it comes to sort of fake news and manipulating information that they really are gold medalists. I mean, they're the best of this in the world, and Putin has worked out, very cleverly I think, before any other sort of 21st-century authoritarian leader that it doesn't actually matter what's true. That's irrelevant. Truth is for losers if you'd like.

What matters is what people can be persuaded to believe is true, so you have propaganda, you have propaganda aimed at Russians, you have propaganda in English aimed at an international audience. And if you can persuade some people it's true and confuse others with fake news and conspiracies and so on, then what you do is you kind of create your own alternative psychological reality - alternative facts, to use the buzz word of the moment.

So it's a kind of cognitive game in which Russia is pouring billions and billions of dollars and it's having quite a lot of traction. There are quite a few people now on the Republican-right who think that Putin's a good guy. There are people on the left who think that Putin is sticking to American hegemony and imperialism and so on. And his informational strategies are highly successful. They're not new, by the way. The KGB was doing this kind of influence stuff, disinformation and so on back in the '60s and '70s. It had its own specialist department. But what Putin has realized is that by hiring trolls, by manipulating Facebook, by doing massive state propaganda exercises, he can actually - he can tilt the dial, and he can win elections in foreign countries including in America.

GROSS: He's probably like the first Russian head who really had access to social media because social media is, you know, relatively new.

HARDING: Well, I mean, the irony is that Putin doesn't use the internet himself. He doesn't use it. He thinks it's an American invention.

GROSS: He doesn't tweet? (Laughter).

HARDING: He doesn't tweet. He thinks it's a CIA creation. But the people around him are savvy and smart enough to know that the internet is the way to go. And the strange thing is actually the Russian media, unlike the Chinese media, is - online at least - is relatively free. I mean, you can kind of post stuff. You can blog. But the problem is that no one quite knows where the red lines are. So if you go too far, then things might happen to you. And so there are an awful lot of Russian opposition leaders I know from my time in Moscow who have big social media followings who were in Russia 2010, 2011, 2012 and many of them are now in exile and who would blame them given what's happened to some of the politicians who stayed behind?

So they're really good at this stuff. I mean, just a small example - I have a number of kind of Kremlin trolls, and they kind of imitate me. So one day I woke up to find a - I'm LukeHarding1968. But there was a fake Luke Harding with a kind of - with a I - an uppercase I at the beginning of my name with my photo and bio tweeting Kremlin press releases one morning. And I had to kind of fax Twitter in San Francisco to get the troll killed. And then I got like 10 more me trolls which sprung up. It's like trying to de-gnome the garden. You know, you chuck the gnomes over the hedge and when you wake up in the morning, there are sort of ten more pressing their noses against your window pane.

GROSS: President Trump is disputing the size of his inauguration crowd. He is disputing the vote in the election. He's saying that there were millions of votes cast for Hillary Clinton that were cast by illegal immigrants who shouldn't have voted. The facts say that those allegations are not true. The facts don't support it. Does that sound familiar to you from what you'd seen in terms of disputing facts or fake news when you were in Russia?

HARDING: It's the classic Putin playbook that you noisily shout something which is basically false, but fits with what you want to believe and assert that that's reality or it's a kind of counter-reality or an alternative reality. Now, call me old-fashioned, but I believe in evidence. I believe in empirical stuff and clearly the crowd was smaller at Donald Trump's inauguration.

But what's amusing, I think, is that the Russians are very good at this stuff. If it had been Russia, if it had been Putin's inauguration, the photo shown on TV would have shown the biggest crowds ever. Most Russians would have believed it. The problem is that you can do these kind of post-modern sort of Kremlin strategies in America, but actually you can't control TV and you can't control Twitter. And Trump doesn't yet have the television networks under his thumb. He's got fake news.

But I think he ends up looking rather ludicrous. So there are two ways now for him to go. Either he can try and increase pressure on news media and get them to toe the line or actually he can go back to living in a more fact-based reality.

GROSS: My guest is Luke Harding, senior international correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Luke Harding, senior international correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian.

You have a new book called "A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination Of Alexander Litvinenko And Putin's War With The West." So for people just joining us, tell us briefly who Litvinenko was.

HARDING: Well, Litvinenko was an officer with the FSB, which is the successor agency to the KGB. And he wasn't really a spy. He's sometimes described as a spy. Essentially, he was a detective working in the 1990s when Russia was kind of very criminalized. And he discovered that his bosses, instead of dealing with the Russian Mafia, were consorting with the Russian Mafia. And essentially that after the demise of the Soviet Union, that crime, if you like, or almost provincial gangsterism, had become the official state ideology and had kind of replaced communism. And one of the people he bumped up against was Vladimir Putin who was the then head of the FSB who fired him for speaking out.

He was then arrested and jailed, and he managed to escape to the U.K. where he wrote a series of pamphlets criticizing Putin. And he became Putin's almost sort of most ebullient (ph) emigre critic. And he also, treacherously in the Kremlin's view, became a part-time consultant with MI6, the British spy agency, advising London on Russian-organized crime, particularly in Spain where Spanish police discovered that criminals living in the south of Spain, Russian criminals, were calling the Russian defense minister, the procurator, the federal drugs agency, and essentially that these two organizations, the Mafia and the government, were a sort of single entity. And that's just not me saying that. That's also the view of the state department, and that leaked out in 2010 in WikiLeaks cables.

GROSS: So one of the frightening things about the assassination is that he was assassinated. The other frightening thing about it is that he was assassinated through polonium, which is an incredibly toxic, radioactive substance. And give us a sense of, like, how toxic this form of polonium is.

HARDING: Well, polonium makes hydrochloric acid seem like milkshake. Basically a tiny amount will kill you - tiny, tiny, tiny. And our best guess is that this was transported from Moscow to London in kind of - encapsulated, wrapped up, if you like, in gelatin, microscopic amounts and then pipetted or dropped into Alexander Litvinenko's tea. He met his two killers, Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, in November 2006. And he drank three or four sips of this tea, which he said he didn't like. And then hours later, he fell violently ill, and the doctors were baffled as to what it was.

Now, what's clever about polonium is that it doesn't give off beta or gamma radiation, which you can detect with a Geiger counter; it gives off alpha radiation, which you can't. So two weeks in after his hair had fallen out and his white blood cells had fallen off a cliff, his counts - they waved this counter over him and they got nothing. And it was only really the day he died that British government scientists found out that this was polonium. And by the way, you can't buy polonium down at a drugstore. You need a nuclear reactor to manufacture it, and the only place which makes it in any quantity is Russia.

GROSS: So the two assassins who were transporting this polonium in order to assassinate Litvinenko, they were found guilty of the assassination in England, but they weren't extradited, so they're still in Russia, the two assassins.

HARDING: They're still in Russia. So Lugovoy became a celebrity. Kovtun who we found out from the inquiry was an alcoholic, really is the kind of - the sort of - the stupider of the two assassins. I mean, his story is itself extraordinary because the title of my book, "A Very Expensive Poison," comes from something he said to a former colleague at the Italian restaurant where he worked in Germany.

So Kovtun flew to London on this killing mission via Hamburg where he used to live, and he was walking on the eve of the plot with a friend of his. And he said, I'm carrying a very expensive poison, and do you know a cook in London who might help put this poison in the food or drink of a notorious traitor? And his friend thought he was joking, but in fact, he was deadly serious. And they then lured Litvinenko to an afternoon tea meeting where the polonium was finally poured in his teapot.

GROSS: Luke Harding, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

HARDING: Thanks, Terry, that was great.

GROSS: Luke Harding is the senior international correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian. His new book is called "A Very Expensive Poison." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we remember Mary Tyler Moore and listen back to a 1995 interview with her. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like yesterday's interview about Silicon Valley execs and other super wealthy people who have become survivalists preparing for various doomsday scenarios, check out our podcast.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Mooj Zadie. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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